MINSK, Belarus -- An opposition candidate who planned to challenge Belarus' longtime authoritarian leader in next month's presidential election has fled the country with his children, fearing arrest. His wife stayed behind to campaign, blasting authorities for trying to use their children as hostages.
Valery Tsepkalo, a former ambassador to the United States and founder of a successful hi-tech park, had been widely seen as President Alexander Lukashenko's top rival in the Aug. 9 vote but he was denied a spot on the ballot last week.
Lukashenko, 65, has run Belarus with an iron fist for a quarter century, relentlessly suppressing free speech in the ex-Soviet country of 9.5 million and cracking down on political opposition. The presidential campaign has sparked unrest in Belarus amid the coronavirus outbreak and a weakening economy.
The government’s decision not to impose a lockdown during the pandemic and its crackdown on opposition candidates has elicited outrage and prompted protests. Opposition rallies have attracted thousands in cities across Belarus in the largest outpouring of discontent the nation has ever seen.
Tsepkalo told reporters Friday that he moved to Russia with his two children after unnamed sources in the Belarus's Interior Ministry and the State Security Committee (the KGB) warned him about a looming arrest and plans to strip him of his parental rights and take his children away.
“An order has been given to arrest me,” Tsepkalo said. “Prosecutor's office agents came to (my) children's school and started asking teachers and administrators to sign some kind of papers.”
Authorities in Belarus have not commented on his allegations.
“We had no other choice, it took us five minutes to decide that my husband should leave Belarus to save himself and our children,” Tsepkalo's wife, Veronika, said at an opposition rally. “They don't allow us to live in the country, they are using shameless methods, with our children as hostages, to try to expel us.”
She has remained in Belarus, j oining forces with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the only opposition candidate allowed on the ballot.
Tikhanovskaya, the wife of jailed popular opposition blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, earlier this week also said she took her children to an EU country after she received threats in connection with her campaign. She told a rally Friday that she is deeply worried about her husband but will not back down.
“It's painful to see Sergei in jail, but seeing the situation that Belarus and the Belarusian people have found themselves at gives me even more pain, so I'm not afraid to stand here, no matter how the authorities try to scare us," Tikhanovskaya said.
Another top potential challenger for Lukashenko, Viktor Babariko, the former head of a major Russia-owned bank, was arrested last month on money-laundering and tax evasion charges that he denied as politically-driven.
On Friday, 3,000 people turned out at an opposition gathering in Novopolotsk, north of the Belarusian capital. And in the town of Hlybokaje, which has a population of 18,000, more than 1,000 attended Tilkhanovskaya's campaign rally.
Human rights advocates say more than 1,000 activists have been detained during the protests since the start of the campaign.
The World Bank has forecast that the Belarusian economy will shrink at least 4% this year, the largest decline in a quarter-century.
Tsepkalo said he plans to return to the country after the election.
“Everything will depend on the outcome (of the vote), but if things heat up in Belarus, I will come back earlier than Aug. 9,” he said.
Lukashenko alleged Friday that his opponents may resort to hiring mercenaries abroad to fuel unrest at home. He offered no proof for the claim.